Palghar lynching: Deconstructing the Church-Communist partnership poisoning the tribal mind

The  nexus between the Church, left-liberal NGOs and communist/secular political parties in manipulating tribals and forest-dwellers is not unique to Bharat. Various templates and theories have been developed to cut tribals from their roots and drive a wedge between them and non-tribals, in order to serve vested interests or Western/foreign goals. And once the poisonous seeds take root, we find periodic eruptions such as the brutal murder of Swami lakshmanananda and the Palghar lynching. 

Murder most foul

In Palghar, two sadhus, Kalpavriksha Giri Maharaj, Sushil Giri Maharaj and their driver Nilesh Telgade were brutally lynched  in the presence of policemen by a mob of hundreds of people carrying stones and sticks.

According to the Indian Express,  they were travelling to Surat from Mumbai through the State Highway 73, off the Dahanu-Jawhar Road, to attend the funeral of a sadhu. At this point, they   were blocked by the police from Dadra Nagar Haveli who were  manning the state border to enforce lockdown. As they were returning, they were stopped near Gadchinchale village.

Apparently, rumours were being circulated that toddy thieves and child lifters were roaming in the area. A doctor who is a frequent visitor to the villages was also stoned and tied up in the days leading up to the murder. 

Truth speaks

The sarpanch of Gadchinchale, who is from BJP, has narrated her eyewitness account of the incident. Her house is situated between the border post from where the sadhus’ car was sent back and the place where they were lynched. So, she could hear the sound of the car passing back and forth. She was informed by some people about the ruckus and went there to assuage the irate mob. 

Two forest guards who were also present there have talked to Republic TV. They have claimed that the car didn’t stop on the way towards the border when the villagers tried to stop it. They were threatened by the villagers to stop the car when it returned. For nearly three hours, the sarpanch kept the mob from harming the travellers and phoned the police for help. 

It is reported that the police arrived late due to the road blocks placed by the villagers. According to  eyewitnesses, the arrival of a  Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader with the police appeared to energise the crowd. Some of them were drunk and pelted stones at the sadhus’ car. One of the men,  Rajesh Soma Bhaver, punctured the tyres. Once the police arrived, they asked the travellers to get into the police van. The driver and the younger sadhu did so. The elderly sadhu was weak and had to be helped by a policeman while getting out of the car. 

According to the sarpanch, the  police recorded a video of the events. As the sarpanch tried to keep the mob from attacking the car she was told, “If you are concerned, then give your children to them. Let them sell your child’s kidney”. 

While rumour mills eliciting such response from villagers isn’t new, the local history of the region where this incident took place and the role of police in literally handing the victims to the perpetrators is disturbing and needs thorough investigation. Visuals of 5-6 people raining blows on the elderly sadhu, even as some others in the crowd called out to them to stop, do not suggest a blood-thirsty mob of hundreds as is being reported. 

The Print reported one of its ‘sources’ as saying “All the residents here are Scheduled Tribes. A majority have converted to Christianity but they follow their tribal rituals. Since this is a far-flung village, Christian missionaries come here and give them food and medicines. The rule has been that these villagers don’t interfere with anyone and don’t let anyone else interfere in their customs and traditions.”

Can a tribal remain tribal after converting to Christianity? How did missionaries get access to such far-flung places if tribals don’t allow anyone to interfere with their customs and traditions? The church itself actively peddles the lie that tribals have separate deities and their gods are different from the gods of Hindu dharma; that their customs are different from the customs of Hindu dharma. What deity then do the converted tribals worship if they follow their tribal rituals? Or is this just a way for the missionaries to keep tribals cut off from other socio-religious groups, and even the State?

The presence and activities of missionaries in the tribal region of Thane

Vidya Prasarak Mandal, an educational trust founded in 1935 by late Dr. V.N. Bedekar and other nationalists inspired by Lokmanya Tilak, did a study on Kashtakari Sanghatana (KS), an NGO working in the tribal cum coastal belt of Thane region. KS was found by Jesuit priests Peter D’Mello and Nicolas Cordoso along with Sushila D’Souza. They worked with  Catholic missionaries in Dahanu. 

The mission was not cooperative to the ideas they had for the tribals, fisherfolk and farmers of the region. Hence, they chose to follow the ideology of Liberation theology which advocates helping the poor and oppressed people through political activism and gaining their trust,  through which they can preach Christianity. Liberation theologians believe that Marxist principles were similar to what Jesus espoused in the Bible. But the Vatican and the pope were critical of Liberation theologians as it focused too much on politics instead of spirituality. 

Kashtakari Sanghatana works in the following talukas in Maharashtra: Dahanu,  Talasari,  Jawahar,  Mokhada, Vikramgad,  Wada,  Palghar,  Shahapur  and  Murbad. They work with the Warlis who  are  the  dominant  tribal  group constituting  about  60 percent of  the  tribal  population in the  area and Katkaris,  Konkanas,  Mahadeo  Kolis,  Vanjaris,  Dhodis  and  Dubalis. 

To understand how Kashtakari Sanghatana came into existence, one must look into the missionary history of the region. 

Missionaries first established an orphanage in Mount Ponisur, Borivali, which later served as the mother house of the congregation. In the beginning, German brothers who were interning during World War I were engaged in what they called ‘tent touring’. They went around in bullock carts, pitching tents outside villages and trying to attract the tribals by entertaining them with a gramaphone, lantern, etc. 

‘The people called them ‘tamashas’‘ says  sociologist  and professor Rudolf C Heredia, Founder Director, Social Sciences Centre, St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, in ‘Tribal Education for Community Development: A Study of Schooling in the Talasari Mission’. 

But the missionaries used their twisted minds to scare the people  about ‘bhooths’, evil spirits which made them anxious and frightened and then advocated baptism as a protection  against the evil spirits. This was described as the brothers’ ‘race to baptise’ as they had baptised over 400 persons in their first year,  out of which only 25 were adults. This drew criticism of their methods and Jesuits were called to assist the mission in 1937. 

By that time nearly 8000 people were baptized, out of which, according to estimates by Jesuit priests, only 700 would call themselves Christians. Due to the opposition that the church faced,  some of the neo converts defected.  Hence the Jesuits began to  strengthen their hold over the remaining Christians through vigorous catechism, improving the quality of schools to receive government’s grant-in-aid, and setting up multi-purpose cooperative societies and rice banks. They also found Christi Sabha in competition with the Kisan Sabha of Communists. 

However, newly introduced government schemes for tribals rendered these useless. After Independence, as the nation moved toward development and socio-economic benefit schemes were introduced, the church had to resort to newer methods to keep the flock engaged. 

“Under the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) of the United States, a large scale programme of food for work was introduced, to develop community assets like roads, wells, tanks, etc., and to generate employment in the dry season. Many of the boarding schools attached to the mission schools were subsidized by CRS,” writes Rudolf C Heredia. 

The church seems to have be running a parallel government  ever since then. In the next line, Heredia reveals the purpose of such initiatives,“Much of this effort though mainly secular its inspiration was religious.”  

Although this approach drew criticism in the beginning, it was legitimised in the end by the second Vatican Council. One must understand that the secular work was opposed because the vigour of missionaries with conversion as the sole aim had diminished.  They could not  find people lending their ears to hear the gospel when their survival itself was under stake!  

Church-Communist nexus

So, the Vatican came to terms with the missionaries doing secular social work. The end goal was nevertheless the same—to bring more sheep to the flock under the one true Shepherd! 

Hardly had the church reconciled  itself  completely  with the new methods of conversion, a more controversial and radical method, Liberation theology was proposed by a Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez:

“Liberation theology is a method of defining Christian faith in the political context of underdevelopment, in a partisan spirit committed to action” 

Meanwhile, at the international stage, Communists, who declared themselves to be atheists, were  implacable enemies of the Church. In Bharat, the Congress party which  was  at the helm at the centre, was against Communist revolts. Hence, in this case, the Church thought it safe to side with the state. During the Cold War, the conflict between the Church and the Communists was so intense that the Vatican, in its decree, excommunicated Catholics who collaborated with the Communists!

In response to exploitation by landlords and moneylenders, tribals sometimes reacted violently, murdering the brutal exploiters. But most often, they fled and hid inside the forest. The Communists founded the  Kisan Sabha and triggered the Warli movement against bonded labour and subsistence wages. 

This resulted in some reprieve based on which Communists built their base. But as the party strengthened its base and started to focus more on electoral politics, it became lethargic with the movement and its radical responses as it had to compromise with the enemies they fought against earlier.  

Activism in the tribal heartland

Thus, the opportunity to launch a radical organisation arose and Kashtakari Sanghatana was founded. The foundation work began when Peter D’Mello came to work under the Talasseri mission in 1976 and founded Kashtakari Sanghatana  in 1978. In the beginning he organised youth festivals, sixteen of them, to attract tribal youngsters towards the ideology and build cadre base for the organisation. 

In these youth festivals,  they were taught about their rights and the way to act against exploitation in order to train them to be militants. Kashtakari Sanghatana was formally launched on  December 23,  1978,  with its headquarters in Siesne village in Dahanu taluka, Thane. It was inspired by a combination of Marxist-Leninist and Naxalite movements.

Rudolf C. Heredia notes that “its roots were not entirely unconnected with the mission.”

The  meeting  on  23-12-1978  took  the  following  decisions  to  define  the  basic  character of the  Kashtakari  Sanghatana. 

  • The  organisation  will  be  a  Left-democratic  non-party  formation  of  tribals  and marginal  peasants.
  •  It  would  be  a  struggle-based  organisation  with  a  closed-fist  holding  the  scales  of justice  as  its  symbol. 
  • The  Sanghatana  would  endeavour  to  integrate  its  own  struggles  with  the  struggles  of other urban  and rural toilers. 

Among the other things usually touted by such NGOs the main aims of Kashtakari Sanghatana included the following: 

  • To fight for land ownership rights  of  forest dwellers  and  their  rights  over  minor  forest  produce  and  engendering  greater  political  and economic  autonomy of the  village  in  administering  its  own affairs. 
  • To  promote  literacy  and  adult  education.
  • To  empower  the  Vanvasis  to  fight  for  their  rights  and  demands  and  to  pave  the  way for  their  political  mobilisation  to  confront  the  established  power  structures  and  strengthening community structures  of decision  making  to resist  imposition  of development  plans. 
  • To  organise  the  Vanvasis  to  fight  against  their  harassment  by  corrupt  police  and forest  officials  and  creation  of  mechanisms  of  resistance  to  abuse  of  power  by  the  local government  officials.

Modus operandi of Liberation theology

Adult education is an important part of the means through which liberation theology influences adults by introducing them to half-truths and misinformation. Peter D’Mello preached anti-Hindu thoughts in the adult education classes to alienate tribal Hindus from mainstream Hindus. 

NGOs founded by the Church are almost always anti-establishment. While the Church superficially aligns with the government, its secular organisations play the role of antagonist when it comes to development, regardless of the party  in power. 

An example in this connection  is the 2011-12 opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear project in Tamil Nadu; the Church instigated protests against the Congress government which was friendly towards them. However, it should be remembered that whatever the issue they claim to be taking a stand on, when it comes to polls they always urge their laity to vote for the most ‘secular’ party!

In Palghar and adjoining areas, Kashtakari Sanghatana plays the role of the protagonist. The protagonist teaches the commoners to fight against the establishment through whichever means possible so that it can charge the establishment with harassment, convince the commoner that the establishment is the villain and then rescue him from the trouble to emerge as the hero! 

In the Palghar sadhus’ lynching,  Kashtakari Sanghatana is said to have been involved in getting bail for the accused. 

The Church likes to keep both the government and the public on a short leash. Another  aim that is usually not talked about is sowing  hatred for Hindu dharma in the hearts of the tribals. The start the conversion process by peddling falsehood that Vanvasis (referred as ‘Adivasis’ to make them think they are the only true natives of the land) always had a completely separate identity with  their  own  gods,  religious  customs,  etc., different from that of Hindu dharma . They  reiterated that tribals needed  to  maintain  the  same  and cautioned  them  against  getting  misguided  by  the  ‘Hindutva  propaganda’  that they were a  part of the Hindu fold.  

Coming back to Kashtakari Sanghatana, the political presence of Communists was threatened as the organisation’s support base grew. It used to conduct people’s court on countering cheating shopkeepers, money lenders etc. The accused were made to pay fines and apologise to the victims. This had a positive impact on the tribals. 

The threatened Communists terrorised the villagers, particularly  targeting converted tribals, as they suspected Kashtakari Sanghatana to be a CIA-backed missionary agent. So, the founders Peter D’Mello and Nicolas Cordoso had to leave the Talassari mission. Peter D’Mello changed his name and became Pradip ‘Deshbhakt’ Prabhu and Nicolas Cordoso became Nicky Bhau to hide their true identity and fool the natives. 

This deshbhakt (patriot) actually told his tribal supporters to ‘always treat the state police and all other government officials as their class enemies as  they  were  all  working  as  agents  of the  rich  landlords  and moneylenders’.

Church and Communism: An uneasy truce

Nicky Cordoso, while recollecting his work with Sanghatana, remembered the words of Pedro Aruppe, Superior general of Jesuits, “From alms to arms”. Once Peter and Nicholas left the mission, everything became amicable between the Church and the Communists. The Church began to support   the Communist party in the elections.

In the past,  Reports of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in 1948 focused  solely on the dangers of Communism. “The gravest danger to faith and right social order is present day Communism. Extensive rioting and lawlessness in big cities can be traced to Communist activities,” the report claimed. 

They even went so far as to call the ideology a ‘virus’ against which the public in general and Catholics in particular must be protected. But the “two sides have become more appreciative of each other since liberation theology made its appearance,” Rudolf C Heredia observes in his book. 

Although earlier  Communists suspected the nature of Kashtakari Sanghatana, they have  currently  grown accustomed to their presence in the only Communist bastion of Maharashtra. Godavari Parulekar, founder of the CPI-M unit in Thane,  accused the organisation of getting funds from the Church and foreign entities and even sought the intervention of Maharashtra government to curb its activities as they were of secessionist nature.

Today, Kashtakari Sanghatana supports CPI-M in elections, and Kisan Sabha welcomes them to their movements. However, the poor tribal is still poor without proper education, hygiene or development plans that would elevate them from poverty. They  actually indulge in illicit liquor trade, smuggling it from Dadra Nagar Haveli where it’s cheap, and selling to individuals and stores in Thane at inflated prices. This is what the missionaries and NGOs have achieved despite listing getting tribals out of liquor addiction as one of their aims! 

Even in  the 1980s, tribals working with Sanghatana were paid ₹300 a month, to make fellow tribals aspire for a similar lifestyle. However,  they  were never made leaders of the organisation. Shiraz Balsara, wife of Peter D’Mello, led the organisation after Peter and now Brian Lobo, another activist-pretender like Peter and Nicholas,  is the leader of Kashtakari Sanghatana.  

Status quoism for tribals

If tribals haven’t been empowered enough in the past 40 years to lead their own, what has the organisation achieved? While Kashtakari Sanghatana and  the Communist party joined hands for the recent assembly polls in Maharashtra and rallied against the bullet train project, nothing much has changed for the tribals. They were fodder to the Communist violence whenever the party felt threatened by a good show put up by Kashtakari Sanghatana. But now they provide cover fire to each other when something goes amiss. 

Rampant conversion activities generate a hate and disregard for what was once considered sacred. Traditionally, tribals are  very respectful towards  sadhus and holy men of the Hindu dharma. How the same tribals today could lynch an elderly, frail man clad in saffron beggars belief. The role of Kashtakari Sanghatana in the attack is being scrutinised. 

Nine juveniles have also been arrested for the lynching. Using women and  children at the front in protests and juveniles in crimes is a time-tested method of NGOs as juveniles can be easily be ‘rescued’  by their legal luminaries. 

Whether it’s the men of the cross or the ones with sickles, blood is likely on both their hands as they have a history of instigating  tribals to take up violence.

References

https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/21/magazine/the-case-against-liberation-theology.html 

https://m.timesofindia.com/The-Cross-and-the-Communist/articleshow/2330020.cms 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4419029?read-now=1&seq=6#metadata_info_tab_contents

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4369139?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

https://books.google.co.in/books?id=PwBPKmWbkxUC&dq=kashtakari+sanghatana&source=gbs_navlinks_s  

http://vpmthane.org/vpmDDSS/pdf/Article/01-AreaStudyFinal.pdf 

https://www.republicworld.com/india-news/general-news/watch-three-eyewitnesses-of-palghar-mob-lynching-speak-out.html 

https://theprint.in/india/illegal-liquor-trade-not-communal-violence-suspected-in-lynching-of-3-men-in-palghar/405811/ 

https://indianexpress.com/article/india/palghar-lynching-sarpanch-says-she-watched-attack-for-2-hrs-ncp-leader-couldnt-control-mob-either-6374896


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